Much of the criticism surrounding Game of Thrones’ last few seasons is that the showrunners had lost their stomach for death. No one will be saying that anymore. DB Weiss and David Benioff have maintained throughout that this final season will not please everyone. The question now remains whether it will please anyone.
Regardless of the plot and character issues and the inevitable debate that will ensue after this episode, Miguel Sapochnik has done it again. Another stunning visual masterpiece which expertly brings to life the horrors of war, masterfully accompanied by Ramin Djawadi’s incredible score.
There are exceptional performances from most, if not all, of the show’s main cast. Lena Headey, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Peter Dinklage, Rory McCann, Emilia Clarke and Maisie Williams all put in fantastic turns, the years spent embodying these characters really shine through in this penultimate episode. Even Kit Harrington gets to show off some range, departing from his usual dour, stoic expressions.
This is a penultimate episode full of action, violence and heartbreak as the show has finally reached its endgame with this assault on King’s Landing. And there is still plenty of fodder for a very dramatic finale for the characters who survived as they handle the fallout of this battle.
The Bells: Episode recap — Spoilers ahead
We open with Varys writing treasonous letters and plotting with a kitchen hand — murder is on the menu. Jon soon arrives in Dragonstone and Varys tries to convince him he ought to rule the Seven Kingdoms. Unsurprisingly, he’s still not interested.
Daenerys and Tyrion have yet another tense conversation about his questionable decisions. Dany looks like a woman at the end of her tether, convinced that Jon has betrayed her. Tyrion gives up his old friend Varys as the traitor and Dany makes good on her promise to burn him alive. The Spider may be able to swim, but he can’t survive dragonfire.
Dany and Grey Worm reminisce about Missandei and Grey Worm throws his slave collar on the fire, portraying their moods ahead of this pivotal battle. Dany confronts Jon about his ‘love’ for her. It does seem like lip service at this point, Jon becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the whole incest thing, as well as her increasingly distraught state of mind.
Tyrion makes a final plea to save King’s Landing, but it falls on deaf ears. He is informed of Jaime’s capture. Tyrion decides to set him free, supposedly for one last attempt to reason with Cersei. Jaime is at least honest about the prospect and points out the constant fallacy of Tyrion’s argument — that Cersei’s love of her children means she’ll consider surrendering. There is a beautiful moment as the brothers say their final goodbyes, their love for each other expertly portrayed by Dinklage and Coster-Waldau.
The battle is about to begin and once again director Miguel Sapochnik and composer Ramin Djawadi do a phenomenal job of building the tension. The scorpions are armed, the Golden Company ready to meet the Unsullied, Dothraki and Northmen and the Red Keep stuffed to the brim with the citizens of King’s Landing. Tyrion, having failed to convince Daenerys, appeals to Jon to make sure if the city surrenders, his forces will hold back.
And here comes Drogon and Daenerys, and they are not about to make the same mistakes as before, as they evade all the scorpion bolts and torch the Iron Fleet and the battlement defences. The city is well and truly overwhelmed, and after a tense stand-off with Jon, Grey Worm and co., the Lannister army throws down their weapons. The bells of surrender ring out, although not by Cersei’s command.
But Daenerys isn’t interested in their surrender, and neither is Grey Worm. Her descent into madness is complete. We get the shot, first seen in one of Bran’s visions, of Drogon’s shadow flying over King’s Landing, and then it is open season. Drogon strafes the city, much to Tyrion’s horror, and Grey Worm begins the slaughter of the Lannister army, and despite Jon’s best efforts, the Northern army joins in.
Carnage ensues. Mindless, horrific slaughter as the city is put to the sword. The cinematography is incredible and the horrors of a city being sacked are stunningly and viscerally brought to life.
Euron and Jaime have a battle to the death for no apparent reason other than Euron fancying a fight, having been resoundingly beaten and emasculated by Dany and Drogon. Jaime overcomes him by sheer will alone and Euron is finally dead, but not without his usual dose of self-delusion, convinced he has slain the Kingslayer.
Cersei finally realises her folly in provoking the Dragon Queen as she watches the city burn and her castle crumbles around her. Qyburn, loyal to the bitter end, convinces her to flee to a Maegor’s Holdfast.
The Hound saves Arya one last time, stopping her from marching to her death in pursuit of vengeance. And CleganeBowl, the grudge match for the ages, is on. Qyburn tries to control Ser Gregor, but his mad dog is off the leash and he meets a swift end. The Hound looks like he has the upper hand and we finally get to see what’s under that helmet. And it’s… Darth Vader? Sandor stabs his brother in the stomach but it’s not very effective. Should’ve gone for the head.
There is some excellent back and forth mirror footage as we see Arya try and escape the chaos of the crumbling, burning city and The Hound battling with his brother. He eventually prevails after a near-death experience, Oberyn style, as he stabs The Mountain in the head and then pulls a Harry Potter and tackles Ser Gregor off the top of the Red Keep and they fall into the flames below.
Arya becomes the centrepiece of the episode as we watch her struggle to survive, surrounded by the horrors of Dany’s rampage. There are numerous near death experiences, and at one point it looks as though she has been crushed by the falling rubble, but thankfully she comes through alive, although bruised, battered and no doubt horrified.
Cersei and Jaime are reunited, and Jaime tries to get to his escape dinghy through the dungeons. But there is no way out and Jaime takes Cersei in his arms as the castle collapses on top of them. This is an elegant twist on Cersei’s prophecy, which predicts that she will die with her Valonqar’s (little brother) hands around her neck. Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau are phenomenal here, and despite her horrendous past, including using an entire city as her human shields, her death becomes tragic as she begs Jaime to save her.
The dust and ashes begin to settle as Arya takes stock, clearly shell-shocked, and a white horse covered in blood appears. Arya calms it down before riding off into the distance, a stunning final, lingering shot of the burning city. “And I looked, and behold a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”
Game of Thrones used to thrive on moral ambiguity and making its fans support ostensibly awful characters, c.f. Jaime Lannister, but even the most ardent Daenerys fans would struggle to reconcile this behaviour. Her descent into madness has been telegraphed for quite some time and is in many ways understandable. But to destroy the city when they were surrendering is shocking, even for “The Mad Queen”. The caches of wildfire exploding are clearly a symbolic completion of her descent into becoming her father.
The showrunners will undoubtedly be criticised for this decision, one which they have been foreshadowing for some time but not many realised would be quite so brutal. It is a bold choice, but whether it fits with Dany’s character is another matter entirely. On the one hand, her history as the Saviour of smallfolk suggests that this is out of character. But then again, she is the Khaleesi of the Dothraki, a people who regularly slaughter and destroy entire cities. While this may be shocking, even by Westerosi standards, she grew up in the East under far more brutal circumstances.
In addition, Tyrion’s failure to understand either of the queens once again leads to poor counsel. By saying the smallfolk would never turn against Cersei out of fear he reinforces the idea in Dany’s mind that the only way to rule these people is through terror. And given Tyrion’s recent history, exacerbated by Jaime’s defection and capture, Dany clearly does not trust him any longer.
Jon might be the only person that could have convinced her to stay her hand when sacking the city, but he is so afraid of seeming like he wants the throne that he goes along with her plan, even when it clearly horrifies him. And his inability to even pretend he still loves her, when she clearly needs love and affection, is the final nail in the coffin.
The confrontation between Jon and Daenerys is coming and after this slaughter, even Jon might be convinced he needs to sit on the Throne. Plus, Arya has survived this ordeal and witnessed and experienced the true horror of this sacking. There is no way she will allow this to go unpunished. And so, one final week of waiting. And no doubt a few more deaths to still to come following this bloody and brutal episode.
Rest in Peace Varys, Jaime Lannister, Sandor “The Hound” Clegane, and our plucky psychopath Qyburn, as well as tens of thousands of King’s Landing citizens. Good riddance to Cersei, The Mountain, and especially Euron Greyjoy, the most annoying character in Game of Thrones’ long history. And Captain Harry Strickland, we hardly knew ye.